Wake up & smell the aloe vera

Our exposure to visual messages has reached a level many regard as a blight on our existence. Rather than join the assault on the senses, we discuss how stimulating them can instantly have customers living and breathing your brand, and why scent marketing is nothing to be sniffed at.

Picture your favourite celebrity. You know their face, their clothes, where they might be seen. You know the sound of their voice, and the sort of thing they’re likely to say. But do you know what their hair smells like? What it feels like to touch their skin? Or how their cooking tastes? Chances are, unless you’re Keith Lemon, you’ve probably never thought about it. Although I bet you are now.

The point is that, like celebrities, brands are manufactured personalities. Or at least, the best ones are. They’re commoditised ideas, designed to appeal to our basic human emotions, in order to make money. The people that we actually have a real relationship with (and no, ten years of Peter Andre calendars does not constitute a relationship) – the people we truly love – we would know those things about. So if you want your customers to engage with your brand on a deeper level, to feel any emotion for it, you have to give them a comparable opportunity to engage its personality, through those three senses that we can only experience face-to-face: smell, touch and taste.

This blog post will concentrate on the power of scent, and is the first in a series exploring how brands of all sizes can form better relationships with their customers, by appealing to the lesser-utilised senses.

A label you can’t cut off

This may sound like a bit of a stretch of the imagination, but there is a lot of scientific evidence to back the power of the senses in branding, and how they can help brands cue emotional connections. Here’s a soundbite from the author of Brand Sense, Martin Lindstrom, which makes very compelling reading:

“83% of all commercial communication appeals only to one sense – our eyes. That leaves a paltry 17% to cater for the other four senses. This is extraordinary given that 75% of our day-to-day emotions are influenced by what we smell”

It seems like a bit of a mission – and a covert one at that – but the evidence suggests that with the right scent you can positively influence the emotions of your customer, and get them to remember your brand more fondly next time. You may not think of your business as a brand, but no matter how small it is, it can still benefit from sense-driven triggers, so long as people can come into physical contact with it. That might well be your shop, showroom or studio, the packaging for your product, even your product itself – especially if it’s a luxury rather than a necessity.

But how exactly do brands harness the power of smell?

Smell sells

The most obvious use of smell as a marketing tool, is as an immediate call to action. Smell food – feel hungry – buy food. Cinemas do it with manufactured popcorn scent in the foyer, because a large proportion of their profit comes from concession sales (the mark-up on popcorn is commonly around the 10,000% mark). And it’s only blissful ignorance that obscures its less glamorous sideline duty – masking the various odours generated by hundreds of anonymous people in a darkened room…partially caused as a result of eating popcorn. Unsurprising then that the scent is made many times stronger with the addition of coconut oil, and a host of other chemicals into the bargain. The third, most advanced job of popcorn in cinemas is to create repeat business. After continual exposure to the paired experiences of film and popcorn consumption, film-goers subliminally conjoin the two. Consequently, the next time they catch a whiff of it in a shop or on the street, they think, ‘Haven’t been to the cinema recently…’

This is how the brain works, establishing shortcut associations to help us make sense of our world. How many times has someone suggested to you that you watch a film with popcorn? The two things are entirely unrelated, and yet millions of people have actually taught themselves that one will improve their enjoyment of the other. There doesn’t have to be a logical connection, just a strong one.

So what’s the science behind this phenomenon? And how can your business utilise it?

The joy of scents

The part of the brain that processes smell, the olfactory system, is closely linked to the amygdala and the hippocampus: responsible for emotion and associative learning, respectively. This is why smells are so routinely, and so easily, able to spark strong memories. It also explains why, occasionally, a certain aroma will stir up particular feelings, for no apparent reason. The likelihood is that your brain has hard-wired itself to link the scent with the emotion, even though you’ve long forgotten the event responsible.

Although such nostalgia usually harks back to childhood, or some other simpler time, new associations can be made to particular smells – especially if that smell is new, too. Either way, you should definitely think about exploiting the power of scent, to get customers to associate your business with a positive emotion, memory; or preferably, both.

For instance, if what you sell arrives with the customer in a box or parcel, childhood memories of present-opening are probably already at play. Even if you know exactly what’s inside, it’s hard for the brain to disassociate this ritual with mystery and excitement. Therefore, by adding a signature scent to your packaging, you could create an invisible label suggesting the excitement of getting a shiny new toy – that customers then learn to associate with your brand.

(Disclaimer: there are some businesses where I would urge you to resist this. Dentists in particular: I’d appreciate not being subliminally imbued with a pathological fear of lemongrass. Cheers.)

Memorable – for the right reasons

It’s important to note: smell doesn’t necessarily have to be considered universally nice, to bring customers back; it just has to trigger the desired response. Apart from the few odours that millions of years of evolution have taught us to associate with health hazards – faeces, decomposing flesh, etc – most are simply neutral. Until you’re convinced otherwise. With petrol, for instance, beauty is clearly in the nose of the beholder.

This is good news because, unless you run a sewage plant, it usually means you can make the most of – and actively promote – any scents that people would naturally link with your business. An obvious move for bakers or florists, but it could also apply to the surgical sharpness of Barbicide at the barber’s, the mustiness of old books at a bookshop, or the tang of fresh meat at the butchers. The more recognisable the scent, the better.

Remember, the nose is effectively a highway to our emotional brain. So, even if your brand has no obvious connotations aroma-wise, you should consider picking a scent that helps people feel more relaxed, and happier to part with their money. But no matter how tempting it is to spray every shelf and stapler in sight with Calvin Klein, don’t do it. Ever noticed how you can never smell your own aftershave/perfume, after the first thirty seconds or so? This is because the brain has evolved to neutralise itself to scent environments, so you can stay aware of changes in your surroundings. The exceptions to this rule are the unpleasant ‘threat’ odours, which survival mechanisms dictate we need to know about. Hence, if you happen to tread on something unsavoury, you’ll have a hard time forgetting about it. Nice one, brain.

So, the message: choose a fragrance that’s pleasant, easy to associate with what you do, and not overpowering. Get that right, and all you’ve got left is the hard part: providing a service that’s worth coming back for.